Iranian hardliners reject tentative peace initiative from US Senator

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The latest hints of possible dialogue between the US and Iran have been flatly rejected by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, in a statement underscoring the deep split between the reformists in Tehran and the hardline clerical authorities.

"Negotiations with the US are not a solution and they don't solve anything," Ayatollah Khamenei said, less than 24 hours after a government spokesman had indicated Iran had no objection to a meeting of legislators from Washington and Tehran proposed by a prominent Senator here.

The feeler was put out last week by Joseph Biden, the Democrat chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee. In what he claimed was a personal initiative, he invited deputies of the reformist-dominated Majlis for "a historic meeting" to discuss tensions between the the US and Iran.

Foremost among these tensions are Iran's pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and US charges that the regime is a supporter of international terrorism and committed to the destruction of Israel.

Mr Biden insisted he was speaking only for himself but, he added, he was confident "many of my colleagues would join me" for an initiative that would be the most substantial since the 1979 Islamic revolution when relations between Tehran and Washington were severed. His overture was clearly intended to seize a possible opening created by President George Bush's State of the Union address, naming an "axis of evil" of which Iran was a member. But Mr Bush drew a careful distinction between reformers around President Mohammad Khatami, and conservative clerics under Ayatollah Khamenei. Reformers say that 23 years after the fall of the Shah, the continuing stand-off with Washington is no longer in Iran's interest.

But Ayatollah Khamenei and the Guardian Council, set up to preserve the 1979 Islamic Revolution, still have the final word. Referring to accusations that Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction, obstructing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and destabilising Afghanistan's interim government, the Ayatollah was quoted by Iran's state-controlled television as saying that "what America wants is for Iran to be weak and dependent".

He added: "We cannot say Iran will be definitely attacked by the US, but we have to accept the threats are serious." He ascribed US pressure to its greed to control the region's energy resources.

Early in the Afghan war, relations improved, spurred by a common dislike of the Taliban. But Washington has since accused Iran of trying to undermine Hamid Kharzai, of smuggling arms to the Palestinians, and of stepping up its quest for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.